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    Monday, February 26, 2024

    UConn routs Saint Mary’s and heads to Vegas for first Sweet 16 trip since 2014

    UConn's Adama Sanogo (21) looks to pass after rebounding against Saint Mary's Mitchell Saxen (11) during the first half of the No. 4 Huskies’ 70-55 win over the Gaels on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
    UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) dunks in front of Saint Mary's center Harry Wessels (1) and forward Kyle Bowen (14) during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
    UConn guard Andre Jackson Jr., left, and Saint Mary's Augustas Marciulionis chase the ball during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

    Albany, N.Y. — Junior Andre Jackson walked into the locker room Sunday night and right into a wild celebration worthy of a March Madness victory that earned UConn a trip to the Sweet 16 for the first time innine years.

    Fiery coach Dan Hurley greeted him and the rest of the Huskies.

    Someone picked up assistant coach Luke Murray’s son, reminiscent to Simba being hoisted to the sky by Rafiki in the blockbuster movie “The Lion King.”

    “We were going crazy,” Jackson said. “As soon as I walked in, Coach was standing right in front and gave me, Adama (Sanogo) and (Jordan) Hawkins a hug. Everybody started yelling and screaming. … It was definitely good energy. Everybody was in here enjoying themselves.

    “It was definitely a great experience.”

    Redshirt freshman Alex Karaban added: “It was just the happiest locker room you could have ever seen. We deserve it.”

    An even better experience lies ahead for fourth-seeded UConn, which extended its NCAA tournament joy ride with a 70-55 victory over No. 5 Saint Mary’s at MVP Arena.

    Up next: UConn faces No. 8 Arkansas on Thursday in the West Region Sweet 16 in Las Vegas at 7:15 p.m. (CBS, Ch. 3 locally). Arkansas advanced by stunning top-seeded Kansas on Saturday.

    Backed by an enthusiastic pro-UConn crowd, the Huskies rode an aggressive defense, superior firepower and depth, and a second half surge to victory for the second straight postseason game.

    A 14-2 run early in the second half put the Huskies (27-8) in front for good.

    When the final buzzer sounded, they danced off the court and took part in the tradition of slapping their school’s name on the bracket that’s located in the hallway. Hawkins did the honor.

    “I’m just really happy,” said coach Dan Hurley, who just earned his first NCAA tourney win in his five seasons on Friday. “I love this team. I love coaching these guys.”

    Playing in the second round for the first time since 2016, the Huskies received another terrific inside effort from junior Adama Sanogo. He finished with team highs for points (24) and rebounds (eight) while sinking 11 of 16 field goals after contributing 28 points and 13 rebounds in a first round win over Iona Friday.

    “Going into the game, I was thinking that for us to win I have to be at my best,” Sanogo said. “That’s why I was ready to do something positive.”

    Senior Tristen Newton chipped in 13 points, Hawkins scored all of his 12 points after intermission and Jackson added six points, seven assists and six rebounds.

    Saint Mary’s (27-8) shot 39 percent from the field, but made just 7 of 22 shots in the second half.

    The game remained tight until the Huskies began to build a lead with about five minutes gone in the second half.

    That 14-2 was the difference. Sanogo went to work inside, scoring eight of his team’s first 12 points.

    UConn tightened up its defense and began to frustrate Saint Mary’s.

    Playing before family and friends in his homecoming game, Jackson scored in the lane to push the Huskies in front for good, 39-38.

    Karaban buried a 3-pointer for his first basket of the game, giving UConn its biggest advantage thus far at 46-40.

    A smiling Karaban was greeted by his teammates heading into a Saint Mary’s timeout at the 13:37 mark.

    The Huskies extended their run on another Jackson basket.

    They weren’t finished.

    Hawkins, who battled foul trouble early and failed to score in the first half, hit his first basket — a 3-pointer — to cap a 14-2 run and make it 51-40.

    Then Hawkins added three more threes, and the Huskies were feeling good.

    “It felt great hitting those shots,” Hawkins said. “ I finally found a rhythm.”

    For the second straight game, UConn dominated the second half. The Huskies trailed by eight early in the first half and led 31-30 at the break after Newton buried a 3-pointer before the buzzer.

    But they kicked it into a higher gear and left the Gaels in the dust.

    Saint Mary's, a West Coast Conference power, had trouble keeping up after losing senior Alex Ducas who left the game for good with an apparent back issue with about five minutes left in the first half.

    It wouldn’t be long before UConn would be celebrating in the locker room.

    “I’m so speechless,” Karaban said. “As a kid, Sweet 16 was just like the coolest phrase that you were able to say. … To actually be in it is something special. We’re excited about the opportunity.”

    The Huskies hope there are more locker room celebrations in their near future.

    “We did do something, but we want to do even more,” Jackson said. “I want to make it to the Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship. That was always my dream.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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